Food Additives…something to worry about?

January 23, 2013 BY: LISA

There is a new website launched recently outlining additive free foods that are available in the supermarkets. The site also outlines the “dangers
of food additives”…but are there really dangers in eating these additives?

While I do encourage any initiative that encourages families to eat healthy fresh foods grown close to home I don’t feel the evidence is out there to recommend avoiding all food additives if you do not have any intolerance symptoms.

Food additives include preservatives that prevent spoilage and help keep our food safe to eat. Colours, flavours and flavor enhancers are used to improve taste and the look of foods. Other additives improve the texture of foods.

Some examples of the role that food additives play in our foods:

(From the FZANZ website)

  • Acids / Acidity regulators/Alkalis help to maintain a constant acid level in food. This is important for taste, as well as to influence how other substances in the food function. For example, an acidified food can retard the growth of some micro-organisms.
  • Anti-caking agents reduce the tendency of individual food particles to adhere and improve flow characteristics. For example, seasoning with an added anti-caking agent flows freely and doesn’t clump together.
  • Antioxidants retard or prevent the oxidative deterioration of foods.  For example, in fats and oils,  rancid flavours can develop when they are exposed to oxygen. Antioxidants prevent this from happening. Antioxidants added to food include ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
  • Bulking agents contribute to the volume of the food, without contributing significantly to its available energy. For example, sugar often contributes to the volume of lollies, while some low-joule foods need bulking agents added to them to replace the bulk normally provided by sugar.
  • Colourings add or restore colour to foods, e.g., icing mixture is coloured to make it more attractive on cakes.
  • Emulsifiers facilitate or maintain oil and water from separating into layers, e.g. emulsifiers may be used in margarine to prevent oil forming a layer on top of the margarine.
  • Firming agents /stabilisers maintain the uniform dispersion of substances in solid and semi-solid foods. These types of food additives may be added to pre-prepared custard to help keep the ingredients from separating.
  • Flavour enhancers enhance the existing taste and/or odour of a food.
  • Foaming agents maintain the uniform dispersion of gases in aerated foods.
  • Gelling agents modify the texture of thefood through gel formation.
  • Glazing agents impart a coating to the external surface of the food, e.g. a wax coating on fruit to improve its appearance.
  • Humectants reduce moisture loss in foods, e.g. glycerine may be added to icing to prevent it from drying out.
  • Preservatives retard or prevent the deterioration of food by micro-organisms, and thus prevent spoilage of foods.
  • Raising agents liberate gases, thereby increasing the volume of a food and are often used in baked goods.
  • Sweeteners replace the sweetness normally provided by sugars in foods without contributing significantly to their available energy- as seen in diet products.
  • Thickeners increase the viscosity of a food, e.g. a sauce might contain a thickener to give it the desired consistency

In order to add an additive to a food the company needs to apply to the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) and this body checks whether:

  • The food additive is safe
  • There are good technological reasons for the use of the additive
  • Consumers will be clearly informed about its presence.

A food additive is only approved for use if it can be demonstrated that no harmful effects are expected to result from the requested use.

For most people food additives are safe. There are some people who are intolerant to certain food chemicals but these can be naturally occurring as much as added to foods during processing. The body is not able to recognize between naturally occurring chemicals and those that have been added. Even those people with an intolerance should be able to tolerate small amounts of food chemicals.

If you suffer from the following symptoms after eating, it is possible that you may have a food intolerance or allergy.

  • Hives or rashes and swellings
  • Headaches or migraine
  • Stomach or bowel upsets
  • Sinus and/or breathing problems

An Accredited Practising Dietitian with a special interest in food allergy and intolerance can assist in identifying which food chemicals you are intolerant to (either naturally occurring or added) and help construct a healthy diet which reduces or eliminates your symptoms. Find an APD at

Overall food additives add value to shelf life, usability and acceptability of our food. In order to choose a healthy diet think:

  • Plenty of vegetables
  • 2 pieces of fruit per day
  • Lean meat or meat alternatives
  • Grainy high fibre cereal products
  • Legumes, nuts and seeds, each day.
  • Low fat dairy products

Some of these foods contain food additives and some will contain naturally occurring food chemicals but it is not necessary to consider them unhealthy as we know these foods are the corner stone of healthy eating and disease prevention.


Lisa (APD)



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